Newly divorced people who face the same level of domestic chaos and economic and social pressure end up in very different places five and ten years later. Here’s a look at why some people flourish — and why others never recover.
Why do the challenges and stresses associated with divorce lead to remarkable attainments for some and to unhappiness and failure in others?
The answer lies in certain risk and protective factors. According to the Virginia Longitudinal Study (VLS) — our three-decade study of divorcing families — stresses such as those accompanying divorce activate a set of risk factors that make individuals more vulnerable to negative outcomes after divorce or a set of protective factors that buffer them against adversity. Risk and protective factors represent more than just a series of individual buffers and vulnerabilities; taken together, they also determine resiliency or the capacity to be adaptable in the face of hardships and to rebound from setback and defeat.
Resiliency is what develops when risk and protective factors coalesce. Although it is not a simple matter of subtracting the number of protective factors from risk factors, in general when protective factors predominate in the mix, people have a greater capacity to rebound. Like the Energizer Bunny, they just keep going. When risk factors predominate, people become brittle and easy-to-break. The stresses of divorce not only knock them down but may keep them down.
While risk and protective factors are ever present, the familiar routines of everyday life mute their effect. People do not have to draw on their innermost emotional, intellectual, and psychological reserves to get up in the morning or drive down to the store for a carton of milk. So, until a crisis like divorce suddenly makes just getting through the day a tremendous challenge, most men and women don’t know how deep their emotional and intellectual reserves go or what talents and skills lie hidden in them.
One way to think of risk and protective factors is as a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress on the road from divorce. Along every life path is a series of hazards to be avoided and opportunities to be exploited. A person did not succumb to depression or to substance abuse; she did make the most of a new job or the influence of a new group of friends. Or vice-versa. However, to understand how these factors come together to create a life path, it is first necessary to know something about them.
Everyone, including children, enters life after a divorce with a set of protective and risk factors that changes as they and their circumstances change. Here are the most important of these factors for adults, followed by an explanation of how they function.
Social maturity is a great asset after a divorce. To be mature means four things. It means being able to plan for the future; to exhibit self-control; to be flexible and adaptable in coping with problems; and to be socially responsible.
- Planfulness. Many newly divorced people I spoke to knew they would have to take some active steps to build a better life and make sacrifices to get there, but few arrived in my office with a master plan and a timetable. However, the planful had concrete rather than general goals and also a pretty good idea of what had to be done to achieve their goals.
The willingness to delay gratification is another characteristic of people who plan, and though it sometimes makes their early years difficult, it has a protective effect in the long run, and not just economically. Because they know what they want, they are less likely to make the kind of rash decisions — like rushing into a new marriage or live-in relationship — that are easy to make when you are confused, emotionally unsettled, and newly divorced.
- Self-regulation. In the first year, stress and anxiety, depression, and anger are common; but some people found ways to control these and the other difficult emotions associated with the failure of a marriage. They didn’t let their emotions cloud their judgment, affect their parenting, or make them act in impulsive or self-defeating ways. For some, self-regulation was a well-established personality trait. Others had to struggle to control their emotions.
- Adaptability. Rigidity, which destroys many marriages, also destroys many divorces. Mature individuals are adaptable and flexible. Unlike many married and divorced couples, they avoid turning solvable problems into unsolvable ones.
- Social responsibility. At first glance, social responsibility seems unconnected to the experience of divorce. How does being sensitive and responsive to other people’s needs and helping others enable a person to endure the failure of a marriage?
According to our data, in two ways. First, people who give a lot to friends, coworkers, and the PTA — the essence of social responsibility — get a lot back when they need help. And secondly, people who feel bad about themselves after a divorce begin to feel good about themselves when they help a colleague solve a work problem or see a friend through a difficult relationship.
Nothing completely protects against the stresses of the early years, but autonomous people — people who are comfortable being alone and making decisions by themselves — find the intense “singleness” of post-divorce life easier to adjust to. Although an important source of support, men and women who rely on friends and relatives to solve their problems often do not make much progress. The recently divorced are very needy, and friends get tired of being leaned on.
Some people find the relief from joint decision making one of the greatest boons of marital breakup. Marsha Klein, a very feisty, autonomous woman, said: “I don’t have to negotiate about where to go on vacation or what kind of car to buy or argue about how to discipline the children. I just do my own thing. The freedom is wonderful!”
Internal Locus of Control
Can problems be solved through our own efforts, or are most of our difficulties beyond our control, somehow the result of malign fate? Are we at the mercy of events and the actions of others, or can we shape our destiny and improve our life situation?
People with an internal locus of control or sense of self-assurance think their problems can be solved through their own striving, and this belief often makes them proactive following divorce. Instead of passively reacting to events, problem-solvers try to shape them. They go back to school, open new businesses, find good child care, and build social networks. People with an external locus of control, on the other hand, tend to feel helpless and to just endure. First, they try to outlast their problems; and if that fails, they passively try to learn to live with them.
Locus of control is not a fixed, unchanging trait. It is developed through life experiences and the responses of others. It can be both learned and altered.
A feeling of powerlessness is common after a divorce. For some people, self-assurance gradually increased, but isolated areas of helplessness remained. For others, helplessness was pervasive and more long-lasting. At six years after divorce, Connie Russell still relied on others to solve her problems. A persistent refrain in her interviews was “What’s the use? Nothing I try works, anyhow.” But the truth was she had made no moves to deal with her problems.
Religion per se does not protect people. The religious and the secular suffer equally when a marriage fails. But a religious lifestyle often does act as a buffer because it provides access to an unusually strong support network. The social isolation, loneliness, and lack of support frequently found after divorce occur less often for those with strong religious affiliations. People in religious networks know and help each other. They share a similar set of beliefs about right and wrong, good and bad, duty and responsibility. Their similarities draw them together.
Another benefit of involvement in a religious group is that it helps in raising children. Someone is always available for baby-sitting. Boys have plenty of male role models, and the people who staff the daycare facilities are usually conscientious, responsible, and eager to reinforce the values a religious-minded person wants his/her child to absorb.
Many adults said that work was one of the few safe harbors available to them after divorce. Some men, having lost their home and families, came to rely on the familiar setting and routines of work for a sense of continuity and stability. Although men often complained about being unable to work effectively, they also frequently threw themselves into work; staying late and coming in weekends provided an escape from loneliness and stress.
Even now, when an increasing number of women are employed, only two thirds of married women with young children work, and of those, over half work intermittently or part time, usually in service, clerical, or white-collar jobs. Only about one-eighth of women with children were involved in a full-time career or profession at the time of divorce. It is not surprising then that for women, the principal protective effect of work was in self-discovery. Many women emerged from a five or ten-year marriage with few professional skills and little stable work experience, but necessity pushed them into improving their situation. They raised their aspirations, went back to school, moved into more challenging jobs, and changed not just their economic status but also their self-image. They began to see themselves as effective, resourceful human beings, and they met new people at work — often more interesting people as their work status improved. It didn’t take being a doctor or lawyer or professor or head of a corporation to protect women: most kinds of work could be protective. The role of family breadwinner boosted a woman’s battered self-esteem and work got her out of the house — no small thing after a divorce. For many women, a job at McDonald’s was preferable to a solitary life at home.
In making the decision to divorce and in the early steps of marital breakup, transitional figures — people who facilitate the transition from marriage to divorce — are among the most powerful sources of social support. Part counselor, part comforter, and part consigliore, a transitional figure provides support and advice during the decision to divorce and the transition to single life later. They may also help with practical matters like finding a new apartment or daycare center and social ones like finding new friends. Typically, parents, siblings, or close friends act as transitional figures; but not uncommonly, a lover will play the role.
Being a romantic transitional figure is a high-risk endeavor. Only about 15% of VLS participants who were romantically involved with another person married that person after the divorce. People who are able to provide solace in getting out of an unhappy marriage may not seem so desirable in a long-term relationship. Indeed, after the transition to single life, many transitional figures find themselves discarded.
All support systems are not transitory. Some, such as those with family and friends, may be enduring. However, as the stresses people encounter change over the course of life, the effectiveness of different relationships to act as buffers may alter. Friends and colleagues at work, parents, siblings, lovers, a therapist, fellow church members, or an Alcoholics Anonymous group may at different times serve as major sources of support and protection.
A New Intimate Relationship
The most powerful buffer against post-divorce stress — a new intimate relationship — often produces a decline in depression, health complaints, and visits to the doctor, and an increase in self-esteem. When someone loves and values you, you begin thinking that you are worth caring about.
Love really does heal, and sometimes more than just heal: sometimes, it saves. The effects of a new, intimate relationship are so profound it is worth repeating my findings: after a divorce, nothing heals as completely as new love. True for women, this finding is even more true for men, who, being less socially adept and more emotionally isolated, often feel unsupported in the early years without a new partner.
The term antisocial is associated with social outcasts, with bikers and drug dealers and criminals, with people who engage in truly aberrant and dangerous behaviors. And antisocial personalities do behave destructively. They have little respect for authority, are violent, irresponsible, and amoral. But less extreme forms of antisocial behavior also can make people vulnerable to adverse outcomes following a divorce. People who constantly quarrel with friends, family, coworkers, and employers, or who are insensitive, unreliable, explosive, impulsive, and aggressive, or get into minor hassles with the law are also acting antisocially.
According to conventional wisdom, the antisocial are the products of a stressed, troubled, poverty-ridden childhood. But our work suggests that conventional wisdom oversimplifies a complex problem. Often the antisocial do live stressful lives, but the stress is usually self-generated. Irresponsibility, violence, and substance abuse make the marriages, friendships, and work situations of the antisocial unstable, and so does their own inability to negotiate or compromise, to see a problem from another’s perspective, or to learn from mistakes.
Impulsive people act without considering consequences or alternate solutions. In other words, they often act on raw emotion, and after a divorce, this tendency creates risks. Because they say and do things without thinking, the impulsive frequently alienate new intimate companions as well as other potential sources of support, including friends and family. Impulsive behavior also can exacerbate the already difficult parent-child relationship. Children with impulsive parents often complained that depending on a parent’s mood, the same behavior would elicit rage, amusement, or be totally ignored.
The tendency to act first and think later also makes the impulsive particularly vulnerable to esteem-damaging casual sexual encounters. And because choices are not thought through, they often make bad decisions. Many impulsive divorced women spent their late thirties and early forties regretting the dead-end jobs and unhappy second marriages they rushed into after a divorce.
Neurotic behavior involves a cluster of anxious, obsessive, depressed behaviors. It creates post-divorce risk in several ways. Besides driving away potential sources of support, neuroticism and depression also carry two other risks. They siphon off important energy needed to build a new life, and may ignite a cycle of worry and helplessness whose net result is to make stress seem so overwhelming that emotional paralysis results.
Many of the VLS participants who were still “stuck” at the two-year point were stuck because depressed or anxious men and women perceive their problems as being just too big to solve.
Attachment to a Former Spouse
At one point or another, most of us have obsessed about a person. We wonder where they are and what they are doing. In imaginary conversations, we explain our feelings and motives, and often as well accuse the person of not loving or caring for us.
Sometimes the object of obsession is a parent, but more often it is a lover — a lover who has spurned us. Though we think about the person constantly, it doesn’t automatically follow that we still love them. Some lingering attachments are based on the dependencies created by the dailiness of a marriage.
However, most people who obsess after a divorce do so because they still feel attached to a former spouse by a complex blend of emotions that includes, but is not limited to, love. What makes lingering attachment a risk factor is its Velcro Effect. The person remains stuck in place; effort that could and should go toward making new friends or forming a new intimate relationship goes, instead, into obsessing about a former spouse.
However, in time, most people do get over an ex-spouse. And at six-year interviews, we noticed a change in men and women who were finally letting go. Their version of the divorce was becoming similar to their former spouse’s version.
People make up scripts about why the divorce happened, and the role each partner played in it, to somehow make the divorce seem more understandable and manageable. But since time has a way of altering perspectives, divorce scripts are constantly being revised and updated. In the first version, people usually cast themselves in the role of noble, long-suffering victim; the divorce was all the other spouse’s fault. But three or four years later, an update of the script has the individual acting more as a co-conspirator than victim.
Cohabitation is the fastest-growing form of relationship in America. Only a tenth of VLS parents lived together before marrying the first time, but fully a third had cohabitated before marrying a second time. The rate among recently divorced and married VLS couples is even higher. Almost half lived together before a first marriage and 60% before a second marriage.
Many believe North America may be moving toward the Swedish model, where cohabitation is now as acceptable as marriage and children born in these unions bear no stigma. Some people applaud the change. They see cohabitation as a kind of trial marriage; a couple gets an opportunity to see how well they fit together before making a legal commitment. However, living together actually increases the divorce risk because it attracts the less traditional and the less traditional are less likely to feel bound by rules. Furthermore, living together does not involve much of a commitment; and when a couple decides not to live together any more, there are not many legal and social impediments to make them hesitate.
Cohabiting relationships, especially a series of cohabiting relationships, also can have adverse effects on children. Children are less accepting and have more problems when their parents cohabit than when they remarry. But in long-term cohabiting relationships, a child may have become attached to the parent’s partner and be deeply distressed at a breakup.
Women with low self-esteem or problems with alcohol or drugs are especially vulnerable both to participating in casual sexual relations and in one-night stands, and to suffering afterward. The lack of caring in the sexual relationships, the waiting for phone calls that never came, led to feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, and depression. Many of these women ended in the Defeated category in the end of the VLS, while a few attempted to take their lives. The seven suicide attempts that occurred during the study all took place after casual sex and all were by women.
By the end of the study, sexual attitudes had changed. So I began to wonder if what was true in 1975 was still true in the 1990s. Maybe my findings on promiscuity were out of date? Many newer VLS participants seemed to agree with the woman who told me, “What’s nice about having sex right away is that it eliminates all that first-date awkwardness in trying to make conversation.”
However, reviewing the histories of couples who had divorced in the last decade, I found the same dissatisfaction with a prolonged period of casual sex and the same desire for a stable, intimate relationship. The only change was in guilt. People felt less guilty and were more open about casual sex in the 1990s than they were in the 1970s.
The two closely related demographic characteristics that define socioeconomic status, income and education level, often break apart after a divorce. We found that women with college degrees sometimes went on welfare or became economically dependent on their families again, or moved in with a parent. However, the better-educated adults in our study tended to be less depressed, more satisfied with their lives, and better parents both before and after divorce. This was not just because they were less likely to be poor than less educated men and women, but also because they were more likely to be working and working in gratifying jobs.
Not surprisingly, an abrupt drop in socioeconomic status often led to depression; but you don’t have to be destitute to be depressed. Women who could no longer afford a private school or summer camp for their children, or to maintain a stylish wardrobe or busy social life, or who had to move to a smaller house or apartment also became depressed by a divorce-imposed reduction in living standards.
While marked declines in income often occur after a divorce, most people eventually right themselves. In our studies, even the subset of women who dropped below the poverty line moved in and out of extreme poverty. Few of our divorced women remained on public assistance for a continuous period of more than a year. The average sustained period that women remained in poverty was about seven months. Divorced women move out of poverty as they gain more skills, get a job, or remarry, and fall back into poverty with job loss or unexpected economic emergencies.
On average, VLS divorced women moved four times in the first six years, but poor women moved seven times. In the best of circumstances, residential instability is distressing and disorientating; but among poor women, it often produced a dangerous ripple effect. In search of cheaper rents, divorced women would move their families into progressively poorer neighborhoods with higher rates of crime and unemployment, with more inadequate day care facilities and schools, and more single mothers and children who had serious behavior problems.
The mothers who got caught in this downward spiral spent great amounts of time worrying about things other parents take for granted, such as their child’s physical safety and whether the child was learning anything at school or being affected by all the crime and alcohol and drugs around him or her.
Many characteristics that put an individual at risk for having problems in intimate relationships are to some extent transferred across generations. Antisocial behavior, neuroticism, alcoholism, and aggression in parents all increase the risk of these behaviors occurring in their offspring, and these behaviors are major threats to marital stability in both generations. This is partially based on heredity and partly on learning experiences. Parents with these characteristics often have poor problem-solving skills, are unable to resolve their marital differences, and serve as poor role models for their sons and daughters. Their children don’t learn how to listen, compromise, de-escalate anger, or soothe and support their partners. Thus, it is not surprising that the risk of divorce may be transferred across generations. Adult children of divorced parents have an increased marital failure rate, and the failure rate is highest of all among adult females. The reason? Women regulate the emotional temperature inside a marriage and carry the burden in marital problem solving.
The Emergence of New Pathways
Risk and protective factors take time to create a distinctive life path. What we saw in the early post-divorce years were massive changes and rapidly altering risk and protective factors associated with malleable, often temporary, styles of coping with the stresses that go with divorce. By the six-year follow-up, many of our men, women, and children in the VLS had embarked on a series of distinctive pathways and patterns of adaptation that some were to continue for the duration of the study.
Points to Remember
- Post-divorce outcomes are not predestined. Risk and protective factors change over time, but choices made, and actions taken, alter future opportunities.
- Seek out resources and use them. Just remember, opportunity only knocks; someone has to get up and let it in.
- Plan and work for long-term goals; short-term sacrifice may lead to long-term satisfaction.
- Take the initiative in shaping your life. Other people can’t solve your problems for you.
- Don’t make hasty decisions. Pain — and the desire to alleviate it as quickly as possible — can and frequently does make people do foolish things after a divorce, things that put the future at risk.
- Overburdened support systems can break down. People are eager to help after a divorce, particularly parents and siblings. But people also have limits; when they are asked to give too much, they often stop giving altogether.
- Cohabiting is not a low-risk relationship. Breakups are higher in cohabiting than marital relationships, and the risk of divorce is higher when a couple has lived together before marriage.
- Work affirms women as much as men. The women who did best in post-divorce life often entered that life through a door marked “Work.”
- A new intimate relationship has the greatest healing effect after a divorce.
How Risk and Protective Factors Work
As a general rule, people with many protective factors do well after a divorce and people with many risk factors do poorly; but numbers alone don’t tell the story. Risk and protective factors are governed by certain rules. These rules are outlined below.
- Using Available Resources. In order to enjoy the protection of a protective factor, you have to use it. This may sound self-evident, but judging from the experiences of Virginia Longitudinal Study (VLS) participants, available buffering factors are often ignored.
For example, one-half of VLS women had access to health care and financial resources, better schools, and after-school programs — to the kind of resources that can help to ease a new single mother’s life and her concerns about her child. However, only about one-quarter sought information about and exploited these resources. The other three-quarters settled for convenience or ignorance. They relied on information from families and friends. They chose the school or daycare center that was nearest or cheapest or easiest to enroll a child in.
The result? The women in the second group not only were more stressed and spent more time worrying about their child’s well-being, they also missed more work time because their support systems kept breaking down.
- Appropriateness. To protect, a factor must also be appropriate to a person’s goals and life situation. For example, for Liddy Pennybaker, a new intimate relationship offered less protection than a critical transition figure — her mother — because marriage was not among Liddy’s early post-divorce goals.
By contrast, a new intimate partner was the right fit — the only fit — for Connie Russell, whose need for unconditional love was an essential element in her ability to begin believing in herself again.
- Awareness of Timing. Timing also affects how risk and protective factors operate. Is the factor available when the person wants it? Even the most perfect partner won’t buffer someone unready for a new intimate relationship, and even the best support system won’t be effective if a person is too depressed to use it.
- Change. Most risk and protective factors are transitory. Lovers appear and disappear, transitional figures emerge or fade away; work becomes more or less interesting; people fall in and out of poverty, gain or lose self-confidence, learn the importance of planning, or continue to act impulsively. As life changes, the factors available to a person also change; often a single alteration can abruptly and dramatically alter a person’s life trajectory — sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.
- Levels of Stress. The ability of protective factors to protect, while significant, is finite. Beyond a certain stress level, factors may lose the ability to buffer. For instance, a divorced parent with personality problems such as impulsivity can parent a difficult, cranky, oppositional child effectively if he/she has access to a good support system. But the needs in this system are so delicately balanced that additional stress can produce collapse.
- Individuality. A parent can help to buffer a child by her planning or self-regulation, and she can try to foster these qualities in her child; but she cannot directly pass on her ability to plan and her sense of self-assurance to that child. These must be learned. Protective and risk factors are non-transferable; every family member has his or her own unique set. The corollary to this rule is that every individual family member follows his or her own individual path through family life after a divorce. Though parental competence and well-being are important to a child, parents can and sometimes do win in families where children lose, and children sometimes can win in families where parents lose.
This article has been edited and excerpted from For Better or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered by E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly (W.W. Norton & Company, 2002). Debunking popular wisdom on the devastating psychological and social effects of divorce, the authors offer a new story, replacing fiction with facts derived from Hetherington’s landmark study of 1,400 families over three decades. She identifies distinct pathways into and out of divorce, as well as “windows of change” that allow some people to turn the challenges of divorce into new opportunities. Available at better bookstores across North America, or on the Web at www.amazon.com, or www.Indigo.ca.
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